The Consequences of Choice
November 6, 2007
By Michelle Brisebois
Customers are seeing “green”… how do you rate?
Is it just me or is it getting warm in here? According to the weather bureau, it’s not my imagination. Weather logs confirm that the15 warmest years on record since 1867 have all happened since 1980 — and statistically, that’s no coincidence. Climate change is considered by many scientists to be the most serious threat facing the world today — more serious than any terrorist activity or economic pitfall. In fact, compared to what will happen if we don’t get our enviro-act together, consider hurricane Katrina a gentle wake-up call. The sheer urgency of environmental issues makes it one of the biggest business trends, because it impacts every industry; and the bakery industry should care because it’s ideally positioned to be a “green innovator.”
Sustainability is defined as “living within the earth’s limits.” Sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it? The alternative is clearly impossible. Nature had developed an ideal system where everything (including us) was absorbed back into the earth after its physical existence had ended. As the 20th century dawned, man started tinkering in the science lab and began to create materials that were strong and didn’t degrade over a natural period of time. Those discarded refrigerators you see along the side of the road don’t beam themselves up to the Starship Enterprise – they sit and sit …and sit. So do plastic bags and other non biodegradable containers. In fact, when garbage decomposes, moisture filters through it producing a toxic liquid known as leachate.
Decomposing garbage also produces greenhouse gases which trap heat and cause global warming. Landfill sites account for about 38 per cent of Canada’s total methane emissions and methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Water and oxygen are required to break down garbage. Water and oxygen aren’t plentiful deep in a landfill, so decomposition takes place very slowly. In fact, when researchers cored down into a landfill in the United States, their search revealed newspapers more than 30 years old still readable! We’re producing garbage faster than mother earth can process it and when you push mother earth – she tends to push back.
Warmer temperatures create warmer oceans; warmer oceans create ideal conditions for big, fat, hairy hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina may have been an act of nature, but there’s no denying that mankind had a hand in providing ideal conditions to nurture the storm, and less than ideal conditions to manage the consequences. MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel reported in the respected journal, Nature, that there has been a 50 per cent increase in the duration and intensity of storms since the 1970s. Hurricanes are a dramatic result of global warming, but should riverbeds and lakes dry up, water will become a precious commodity — one worth fighting over. If countries are willing to go to war over oil to fill their SUVs, it’s not hard to imagine the motivation for conflict that could be mustered over life-giving water. So, if this “doomsday scenario” is widely accepted as the probable future, why aren’t we all more motivated to change our ways? As Upton Sinclair says, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”
Until now, “going green” has generally been a very expensive proposition for businesses. The bakery industry has a pivotal role to play in sustainability because it deals not only with a multitude of packaging formats, but also food waste. According to Environment Canada, about one-third of Canada’s waste is paper and paperboard. Another third is yard and kitchen waste. The rest is divided among glass, metals, plastics, textiles, wood, and other materials. Implementing environmentally friendly business policies has been a lonely road for those operators who have taken a stance on sustainability. As with any emerging technology, “green packaging” is more expensive.
Paul Traversy, co-founder of Savory’s Fine Foods in Ottawa, has chosen to use oxo-degradable bags for his operation. Traditional plastic bags can remain in a landfill site for many decades, the oxo-degradable bags break down into the byproducts of water, carbon dioxide, biomass material, and trace mineral salts after a bag’s 18 to 24 month degradation takes place. Traversy confirms that these bags are significantly more expensive than traditional plastic bags, but he’s motivated to “go green” as a global citizen, a businessman and most importantly – a father.
“I’m doing this for my kids,” says Traversy. “I want to be a role model. My kids are really interested in the environment and I show them what Savory’s is doing to make a difference in all our futures.”
Carol Zweep, manager, packaging services technical services at the Guelph Food Technology Centre, concurs that cost is an issue for those operators wanting to use environmentally friendly packaging. She believes the best approach is to strive for balance. “Operators should look for non-commodity items that can more easily absorb the higher packaging costs,” says Zweep. “Right now, it may be easier for consumers to stomach the cost of green packaging on a ready-to-eat meal, than a commodity item like bread.”
“I’ve chosen the oxo-degradable bags because I need the strength for grocery items,” confirms Paul Traversy. “You do have to understand how to store these bags properly, since they are designed to break down when exposed to certain conditions.” Savory’s also uses paper and cardboard instead of plastics for their take-out items. So, if some brave operators are boldly going where no bakery has gone before, do consumers care?
Global warming and congested landfills are for the most part, fairly abstract ideas for most Canadians. After all, we’re 33 million people living in the world’s second largest country, in terms of square kilometres. We’ve got room to spare. Hurricanes aren’t a regular threat, though tornadoes and smog alerts hit closer to home. When asked if his customers care that’s he’s using environmentally friendly packaging, Paul Traversy sees a generational difference. “Many customers do appreciate what we’re doing,” says Traversy. “Oddly enough, there seems to be more awareness and passion for environmental concerns with the younger generation.”
Carol Zweep believes that the connection for many consumers will be made when more communities start employing a “surcharge for dumping” strategy. “Consumers will start to psychologically attach a cost to non-environmentally friendly forms of packaging,” says Zweep. “That may begin to make them more receptive to paying a premium for bio-degradable packaging.” If the lonely operator and the little consumer are the only ones left “holding the bag” (all puns intended) – what role does big business play in this issue? Is saving our planet a niche market or major trend?
Futurist James Canton, PhD, in his new book, The Extreme Future, identifies climate change as one of the top ten trends upon us. Canton suggests that the “Clean Tech” market will grow to $150 billion US by 2015, from its current level of $10 billion. Clean Tech is about keeping the planet clean – profitably. As the author states, “I always forecasted that once business could figure out how to make money from saving the environment, the future would be safe.” General Electric, often considered the gold-standard for corporate performance, has pledged to invest $1 billion in clean energy technology. GE also plans to curtail carbon emissions. Wal-Mart dims its lights at strategic times and controls the heat to save energy. On Sept. 22, 2006, Wal-Mart announced plans to measure its 60,000 worldwide suppliers on their ability to develop packaging and conserve natural resources. This initiative is to begin in 2008. It is projected to reduce overall packaging by five per cent. “As the big corporate players start going green, consumers will gain awareness and be more proactive,” says Carol Zweep.
According to a U.S. study done jointly by Duke, Berkeley and Harvard universities – investors are starting to reward those companies who make saving the environment part of their culture. The study entitled “Do Corporate Social Responsibility Ratings Predict Corporate Social Performance?” reports “approximately 1 in 10 dollars invested was done so under the influence of socially responsible criteria.” The challenge for consumers and investors, the report states, will be to sort through possible “corporate greenwashing.” Greenwashing is the process by which a company talks of social responsibility but neglects to “walk the talk.” These companies usually have robust marketing and communications departments. Wal-Mart is one example of a company that’s trying to communicate a positive stance on social responsibility, yet has come under fire for lack of social responsibility — specifically in the areas of labour relations and the environment.
We built this mess one bag of garbage at a time, and we’ll fix it by decreasing our output one bag of garbage at a time. Look at your business and identify one product or process that could be made more environmentally friendly. Be strategic about it, and then add another and another. Perhaps at the same time, governments and industry will take a more long-term view and make Clean Tech a priority. Then we’ll truly begin to heal the damage. As each one of us makes these changes, it may be wise for us to remember this Native American proverb: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
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